Russia’s most outspoken opposition journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was brutally gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment building on 7 October, leaving many in Russia’s democratic and human rights community in despair.
‘No-one has any idea who exactly killed her, or why. But I feel what’s going on [in Russia] these days is fascism,’ says Alla Gerber, head of the Holocaust Foundation. ‘The main idea is to destroy everyone, everything that’s different.’
Politkovskaya, a grey-haired mother of two and fearless liberal of seemingly boundless energies, was increasingly at odds with a Russia that is rapidly returning to its traditional authoritarian and xenophobic social moods under President Vladimir Putin.
A Makarov pistol and four spent cartridges were found near Politkovskaya’s body. Police said there were four bullet wounds, including one to the heart and one to the head, indicating an execution-style slaying.
As a special correspondent of the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, partly owned by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Politkovskaya was rare in that she covered both sides of the second Chechen war, which broke out in late 1999. She reported on Russian atrocities against Chechen civilians, and the mass torture and killings of alleged rebel prisoners in the notorious Chernokozovo prison camp in northern Chechnya.
Death threats, usually anonymous, were a staple of her life. In 2001 she went into voluntary exile for several months after being warned that a Russian security officer she had accused of killing Chechen civilians was bent on revenge. The officer was briefly detained by police but released for lack of evidence. ‘Politkovskaya was the only one writing the truth about the war, and Novaya Gazeta was the only paper in Russia that has been opposing the Putin regime in a consistent, principled way,’ says fellow journalist Boris Kagarlitsky.
She accused Russian security forces of attempting to poison her on an aircraft while flying to mediate the Beslan school tragedy two years ago. After drinking a cup of tea handed to her by a steward, she lost consciousness and had to be hospitalized. Her medical records subsequently disappeared, making it impossible to investigate her claim of poisoning. Her 2004 book, Putin’s Russia, was a devastating critique of the militaristic, authoritarian and neo-imperialist revival that has swept Russia under the rule of the former KGB colonel.
Colleagues are baffled, and frightened, by her murder. ‘If she’d been killed five years ago, at the height of the Chechen war, it wouldn’t have been so surprising,’ says Kagarlitsky. ‘But Putin makes a lot of Russia’s new stability, and it doesn’t make sense that the authorities would be behind something like this now. There must have been a very special reason.’
Politkovskaya had been preparing an exposé on torture and disappearances in Chechnya, carried out by security forces under control of the pro-Moscow prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, when she was killed. ‘We never got the article, but she had evidence, and there were photographs,’ revealed Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Vitaly Yaroshevsky. Politkovskaya is the 13th Russian journalist to be targeted in a contract-style murder since Putin came to power in 2000.Fred Weir